“To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.”
These words were spoken by one of the nation’s most passionate conservationists: Republican President Teddy Roosevelt. I admire him for his pragmatism and individualism — foundational traits of the Republican Party. We must summon these qualities and apply them immediately and stoutly to the issue of climate change.
Leading up to the elections of 2008, Republican leaders at all levels were working innovatively across party and ideological divides to address environmental issues, including climate change. They included names like Huckabee, Pawlenty, Schwarzenegger and McCain. I was re-elected with almost 80 percent of the vote in bright red Utah as an environmentally forward-leaning Republican.
But there has been a shift among Republicans on climate change. Last fall, 50 percent said there was solid evidence of rising temperatures on earth, according to the Pew Research Center. But that is down from 2006, when 59 percent of Republicans held that view.
Perhaps some of this shift has to do with the economic collapse and a resulting change in concerns and priorities. At the same time, many party leaders may have felt the need to run for cover because of growing pressure from the Tea Party. (Among Tea Party Republicans, 41 percent told Pew last fall that global warming was not happening; another 28 percent said not enough was known.) Others in the party have simply moved away from the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt. What’s been lost is any Republican creative thinking on the issue.
So obtuse has become the party’s dialogue on climate change that it’s now been reduced to believing or not believing, as if it were a religious mantra.
This approach reached a new low last month during a North Carolina congressional debate at which all the Republican candidates chuckled at a question on climate change — as if they had been asked about their belief in the Tooth Fairy. Is climate change a fact, they were asked. All four answered no. This is a shortsighted strategy that is wrong for the party, wrong for the country and wrong for the next generation. It simply kicks a big problem farther down the field. And it’s a problem we — as solution-seeking Republicans — have the opportunity to solve.
The implications were underscored once again on Tuesday, when a team of more than 300 scientists warned in a report to the White House of “mounting evidence that harm to the nation will increase substantially in the future unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases are greatly reduced.”
Our approach as a party should be one of neither denial nor extremism. Science must guide sensible policy discussions that will lead to well-informed choices. which may mean considering unexpected alternatives. We aren’t inspiring much confidence, especially among millennials, who at least want an intelligent conversation on the subject.
But the scales must be balanced. This means that the environmental community must be able to demonstrate a genuine appreciation for different perspectives. Discussions will not be productive if certain solutions are dismissed out of hand. This may mean accepting that natural gas or nuclear energy are part of our shorter-term horizon, rather than fighting those approaches.
While there is room for some skepticism given the uncertainty about the magnitude of climate change, the fact is that the planet is warming, and failing to deal with this reality will leave us vulnerable — and possibly worse. Hedging against risk is an enduring theme of conservative thought. It is also a concept diverse groups can embrace.
If Republicans can get to a place where science drives our thinking and actions, then we will be able to make progress. We need to plan for the impacts of climate change at all levels of government. We need to empower Republicans leading those efforts to make decisions and investments that benefit their constituents, the party and the planet. Denying the science will only hinder their chance for success.
Republicans need to get back to our foundational roots as catalysts for innovation and problem solving. The country is already on a positive trajectory, with 2012 greenhouse gas emissions down 10 percent from 2005 levels. What we need to do now is what we have always done well: combine our ingenuity and market forces to lock into that trajectory. As Teddy Roosevelt teaches us, it would be foolhardy to undermine the environmental richness that will serve to empower our future generations.
Jon M. Huntsman Jr., chairman of the Atlantic Council, was governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009 and the United States ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011. He was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.